Scores of disabled activists and allies have staged a Westminster protest against government plans that they believe would cause the country to slide back towards a segregated education system.
As many as 70 campaigners joined the high-spirited, noisy march to protest at reforms that would make it harder for parents to secure a mainstream education for their disabled children and destroy years of progress towards a more inclusive system.
The coalition government has pledged to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in the education system, and has backed that pledge with proposals laid out in its special educational needs (SEN) green paper.
The protest was timed to coincide with the penultimate day of the green paper’s public consultation.
The government wants to reintroduce two notorious “caveats” that made it easier for schools to avoid admitting disabled pupils.
The caveats were removed following a long campaign in the 1990s by disabled activists including Richard Rieser and Micheline Mason, who are leading the new Reverse the Bias campaign against the government’s proposals.
The government also plans to replace SEN statements with personal budgets for disabled children, which Mason and Rieser believe would simply lead to councils rationing school-based support.
And they say the government’s policies on free schools will lead to the launch of a new generation of special schools, outside the control of local authorities.
The march started on Westminster Bridge and wound past the Houses of Parliament and twice around Parliament Square, before campaigners set off balloons outside Westminster Abbey, to highlight the involvement of the Church of England in running special schools.
Rieser told fellow campaigners outside the abbey: “We are an inconvenient truth. We are disabled people and we have a right to be included.”
The protest moved to the nearby offices of the Department for Education, where Rieser and Mason handed over information for education secretary Michael Gove about the campaign and their demands. Campaigners also delivered a letter to Downing Street.
The launch was attended later by two high-profile Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and shadow work and pensions minister Stephen Timms, who both backed the campaign.
But Corbyn warned Rieser that they would have “quite a tough fight”, as prime minister David Cameron was “absolutely convinced that special schools are the answer”.
Rieser said: “They want to get rid of disabled children from mainstream schools because then they are easy to sell off to private business. Why else would they want to change the law back to where it was 12 years ago?”
Mason said she was “stunned” by the “mixture of power and lack of knowledge” displayed by the government, and at having to start again “from square one”.
She said: “I cannot possibly sit back and watch what I have now seen with my own eyes as being so liberating for people be destroyed by people who don’t know what they are doing. I just can’t sit back and watch it happen.”
She added: “What segregated schools do to non-disabled people is they teach them that we do not matter… that we belong somewhere else, and they take that attitude into their adult life.”
One fellow protester, Michelle Daley, a disability equality consultant, campaigner and former member of the government’s Equality 2025 advisory network, who attended a segregated school as a child, said: “How can the government be supporting a biased education system that doesn’t provide many disabled people with the same opportunities to reach their potential as others?”
Lucy Mason, an international children’s rights worker and daughter of Micheline Mason, added: “What they are doing is dismantling a lot of the civil rights that disabled people have campaigned for over the last 20 or 30 years. I feel like we are about to go backwards.”
The disabled actor and broadcaster Mik Scarlet, who attended mainstream schools throughout his education, said he could not believe that, in the 21st century, he and other disabled activists were being forced to protest outside the Department for Education to call for disabled people to be able to attend mainstream schools.
Scarlet said his own experience had benefited not only him but also his schoolfriends.
He said: “We need to be all together. I know it works. Part of the reason I am so confident is that I went to school with a load of non-disabled people.
“If we don’t grow up together and we don’t know each other as people, a lot of the stereotypes and myths about each other carry on.”